"What ’42′ Misses About Jackie Robinson’s Integration Of Baseball, And About The Civil Rights Movement"
On Friday 42, the big-screen treatment of Jackie Robinson starring Chadwick Boseman as the player who integrated Major League Baseball and Branch Rickey as the man who gave him the contract to do it, hits theaters. Unfortunately, what could have been a nuanced and complex exploration of racism and the role of sports in progressive movements and American life at large is a cliched, hackneyed mess that exists more to lionize Branch Rickey than to explore the real journey to desegregating America’s game. ThinkProgress sports columnist Travis Waldron and I saw 42 together, and discuss the problems with the movie’s treatment of history—as well as with its acting and writing—here:
On Wednesday, you and I headed out to see 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that might be better titled The Oracular Pronouncements Of The Sainted Branch Rickey. I think we both walked out of the theater thinking that it was a terrible movie: there’s no human moment the script can’t resist immediately quashing with cliched oratory, and with a few exceptions, it seems to have some real anxieties about portraying the uglier side of racism.
I want to talk about all of those things, but I thought we should start with the one thing the movie got right: the economics of bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. “New York is full of Negro baseball fans,” Rickey (Harrison Ford, overacting so dramatically I’m amazed he isn’t sponsored by the ham council) tells his assistant Harold at the beginning of the movie. “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green.” When a gas station attendant refuses Robinson access to the toilet when his Negro League team is on the Deep South, Robinson blackmails him into desegregating it by suggesting the team can buy its gas elsewhere. “Jack, is this about politics?” a white reporter asks him at his first spring training. “It’s about getting paid,” Jackie (Chadwick Boseman, who might have had a star turn with a better script) tells him. “I’m in the baseball business,” Rickey tells Robinson at a later point. “With you and the other black players I hope to bring up next year, I can build a team that can win the World Series. And a World Series means money.” Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (a fantastic Christopher Meloni) lectures his players, some of whom oppose the idea of playing with Robinson, “I’ll play an elephant if it’ll help us win…We’re playing for money, here. Winning is the only thing that matters.” Durocher himself is suspended from baseball when the Catholic Youth Organization threatens to boycott the league over his affair with a married actress. Even the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (a very strong Alan Tudyk) recognizes the economic imperatives, taunting Robinson at the plate “You’re here to get the nigger dollars for Rickey at the gate.”
That economic imperative story is interesting, and it’s important—and it’s a critical reminder that the decision to desegregate baseball wasn’t simply done out of the goodness of Branch Rickey’s heart. I actually wonder if that’s one of the reasons we haven’t seen an out player in professional sports, yet. Unlike with black players and black fans, who were visibly excluded from the game, and who represented a clear pool of both ticket dollars and playing talent that were shut out of sports, it’s not as if there are alternate gay leagues and alternate gay fan bases that are visible to mainstream sports and mainstream executives.
But it’s a story that pretty much gets smothered in sentiment. What did you think? I’m particularly curious what your reaction was to the way 42 presents how Robinson’s teammates came around to his presence on the club.
* * * * *
You’re spot-on about our general reactions to the movie. My initial takeaway was that it was essentially Jackie Robinson 101, in that the storyline didn’t really bring much to light that anyone who is even modestly familiar with Robinson’s story didn’t already know. I’ve described it to others who asked what I thought of it as “a kids movie with the n-word,” since it’d make a half-decent introductory piece for anyone who hasn’t heard of Robinson but doesn’t explore much for anyone who has. And it treated its audience like kids who had never heard of Robinson too, given its lack of subtlety in every major moment of the film.
The exception to that was, as you mentioned, the economics of bringing Robinson into the game. The scenes you mentioned — Durocher saying he’d play an elephant and send his brother back to the farm team if it meant he’d win, and Jackie saying it was about getting paid — were among the most enjoyable and informative of the movie, the types of scenes that may broach the only new ground viewers didn’t already know. But even then, the writers couldn’t resist the “goodness of the heart moment,” when toward the end an injured, bloodied Robinson asks Rickey again why he pushed for integration. Rickey offers a long-ish monologue about black players he saw in the 1920s and hating himself for not doing more to help them, finalizing it by telling Robinson, “You made me love baseball again.” In a movie full of trite cliches, it was the cheesiest line of all, one that fed right into the “Branch Rickey saves the day” feeling of the film. I do love that you tied it to the out movement in sports right now, especially given that modern owners like Mark Cuban have said that an openly gay player would be a marketing boon for teams and leagues. It’s a great underserved market that few owners have really thought to take advantage of.
I had mixed feelings about the way it portrayed the teammates’ reactions to Jackie. I enjoyed that it showed an earnest Ralph Branca — an Italian-American Catholic who no doubt suffered some mild discrimination in baseball’s WASP-y mid-century culture (the movie even mentions this) — trying his best to include Robinson from the first time he entered the Brooklyn locker room. I also thought the scene in which Pee Wee Reese embraced Robinson in Cincinnati was handled well, though given its spot in baseball lore, it would have been an unthinkable tragedy to get it wrong. But, the producers also skirted over some of the issues and got some of them wrong. Though it played a major role in the movie, there’s only mixed evidence that Dodgers’ players ever circulated a petition against allowing Robinson to join the team. And with the exception of the scene where the team is denied entry into a hotel in Philadelphia and Robinson erupts at Dixie Walker, most of the dialogue about players not welcoming Robinson occurs without Robinson in the room. It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that most of the enmity Robinson faced from his own team occurred behind his back, but that wasn’t the case: on Opening Day 1947, Branca was the only player who lined up on the field next to Robinson. The rest of the team refused. There’s also only a passing reference, in the Walker-Robinson scene, of struggles to connect with teammates because he couldn’t share the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants on many of their road swings. There’s very little acknowledgement of how lonely and troubled Robinson was throughout the season, and that acknowledgement comes only when you see how happy Jackie is to return to his wife each day. His relations with his teammates are emblematic of my problems with the entire movie: it gives you a taste but absolutely nothing more.
It’s hard to fully address all of the issues surrounding the integration of baseball in a two-hour film that is meant to be mass-marketed, but that brings me to something you said as we walked out of the theater: there was a great missed opportunity in this movie, and that was the chance to tell the story through the eyes of another character that the audience wasn’t immediately familiar with. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how more Wendell Smith could have made this a movie where we walked away with a different feeling.
* * * * *
I’m glad you brought up Wendell Smith, the sportswriter who, in 42, serves as both Robinson’s driver and consigliere on behalf of Branch Rickey, and as a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier. Including him in the movie was a smart device, giving us a narrator who serves as an observer in much the same way that we in the audience are. But as with everything else in 42, the way Smith is treated is a taste without heft or context, and his presence in the movie ends up a reminder that 42 is leaving out an entire movement to desegregate baseball at the expense of lionizing Branch Rickey.
At one point in the movie, Smith tells Robinson, who has a generally diffident attitude towards him in one of 42‘s few nods towards allowing its hero a personality, that he’s involved not because of personal affection for Robinson, but because the segregation of baseball hurts him, too. He points out that he’s sitting in the stands not because he prefers working with his typewriter there, but because “Negro reporters aren’t allowed in the press box. So guess what? You, Mr. Robinson, are not the only one with something at stake here.” In real life, Smith had covered Negro League teams for the Courier and been turned down for a membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America on the grounds that the paper he wrote for was not white-owned. He’s also credited with recommending Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey as a strong candidate to be the player to integrate the major leagues, rather than Robinson being some miraculous discovery of Rickey’s. In 1948 he got into the Association, becoming its first black member, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, after his death.
And neither Smith nor Rickey was operating in a vacuum. New York’s Labor Party Congressman Vito Marcantonio had introduced a resolution that authorized the Commerce Department to investigate discrimination in Major League Baseball. There was an End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee—which had the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—that planned marches on Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, then the home of the Giants, and held off only when New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, then in the last year of his tenure, promised to address the issue of baseball segregation in a radio broadcast. He, in turn, held off when Rickey told him of his plans to announce Robinson’s signing, though LaGuardia did convene the Committee On Unity to research the ramifications of integrating baseball. While 42 portrays a network of prominent black Southern citizens who housed Robinson while he was in spring training with the Dodgers, it never acknowledges that there was real legislative pressure on baseball to integrate, and a real movement that made the demand to desegregate urgent.
In other words, there’s a story here that’s not just about the goodness of white people like Rickey and Reese (who interestingly, is also portrayed as part of the economic story of the movie, initially refusing to get involved in the opposition to Robinson’s signing because he had a wife and child to support), but about the organizing power of black people and their white allies. That’s a more complicated story, one less easy to score to swelling music. But it’s an interesting one. I bet Wendell Smith would have reported the hell out of it. And I know I would have enjoyed watching it.
* * * * *
What you just wrote really hits at the biggest tragedy of 42: it was a movie that told us it was dreaming big and even sold us the image of dreaming big — think little Ed Charles, the young black kid who attends Robinson’s first spring training game in Sanford, Florida and instantly dreams that he could one day be Jackie Robinson. But in the end, 42 feels so small. The reality is that you can’t tell the story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball in two hours. What you can do, though, is tell a story in two hours, and it’s that story that the producers, directors, and writers ultimately missed.
Wendell Smith might have been that story. And in the beginning, it almost seems like he is. The movie starts with Smith typing away as a flurry of newspaper clippings fly across the screen, with Smith narrating that in 1946, there were 400 Major League Baseball players and all of them were white. “But in 1947,” Smith’s voice booms, “that number dropped to 399.” That’s really the last truly seminal moment Smith plays in the film until he reminds Robinson that integration isn’t just about him more than hour later. Had the film stuck with Smith and allowed him to tell the story, we might have seen how Robinson’s integration of baseball affected the black community and black culture, what it meant for black baseball fans to see a similar face on the fields of the lily-white baseball diamonds and what it meant for children like Ed Charles, who eventually became a Major League Baseball player himself. Or maybe the efforts that existed outside of Branch Rickey and baseball to integrate America’s game might have been that big story. As you note, it wouldn’t have had the bombast and the musical swells of a movie centered solely on Robinson, Rickey, and the 1947 Dodgers, but it would have told Robinson’s story in a way that hasn’t been told.
Ironically, that story might have made Robinson look like an even bigger hero than 42 did. Because in the end, Robinson wasn’t just a baseball player, and he wasn’t just breaking baseball’s color barrier so he could make money or so that he could play baseball with white guys. Robinson’s integration of baseball was a major step that put a black man on top of white America’s most iconic piece of culture. It helped mainstream the Civil Rights Movement and is a major moment in the history of our nation. The story of Jackie Robinson has never been just the story of Jackie Robinson. It is a story about us, our country, and the problems that plagued us in our past and still show up today. Instead, 42 told us the story we already knew, one that is stuck solely in the past and gives us the impression that all is OK, knotted up into a perfect ending in which the first black baseball player walks off the field, cap held in the air to acknowledge an adoring crowd, as all of America’s wounds are healed.